Blame Bush or Clinton for Russia's Invasion?

Among the charges leveled against the West these days by Moscow's defenders is hypocrisy. Viewed from the U.S., the obvious parallel is Iraq: If we get to invade Iraq without prior international approval, why can't Russia invade a much closer neighbor?

But the better analogy---and the one that has apparently stirred up the Russians to a greater extent---is Kosovo. Recall that the NATO operation in Kosovo was not authorized by the UN Security Council, and thus, from the perspective of international law, illegal. Indeed, it was also probably illegal from the perspective of domestic U.S. law, as President Clinton sought and failed to obtain Congressional approval for the action, but then went ahead with it anyway.

At the time, the internationalist left in the U.S. was divided. (But pretty much only in the U.S. I happened to be in Italy at the time, where the left was almost unanimously opposed to the action, not principally on Serb-friendly grounds but on general anti-war and anti-U.S. grounds.) Many of the people who had been distraught by world indifference to the Rwandan genocide and the slow reaction to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia were glad that the West was finally taking a stand against many of the very perpetrators of the latter. But others worried deeply about what precedent would be set by a humanitarian intervention without formal legal authorization. After all, military expansionists (including Hitler himself) have used the pretext of humanitarianism to wage aggressive war.

Did Russia infer from NATO's actions in Kosovo that there was now a new norm permitting military action to aid a breakaway region? Maybe, although given the conflict in Chechnya, it's hard to see how Putin could have made that a universal principle.

Still, it's probably wrong to see in Russia's actions in Georgia simple self-serving power politics. Justifications do matter, and Russians may well be right to see a double standard here. Why does NATO get to say that Kosovo needs its help while Russia cannot say the same about South Ossetia?

I'm still tempted to say that the key event was not so much the 1999 NATO action in Kosovo but the decision of the US and various NATO allies earlier this year to recognize Kosovo's claim to independence. While atrocities are occurring, there is a good moral argument for military intervention on humanitarian grounds, even if such intervention is illegal because not authorized by the Security Council. But changing international boundaries should require a more orderly process. Viewed from Russia, Western acknowledgment of Kosovar independence confirmed the suspicion that the 1999 action (including the bombing of Belgrade, let's not forget) reflected anti-Slavic aggression all along---and such acknowledgment occurred on the watch of the current President Bush.

Posted by Mike Dorf